HPA Technology Retreat 2009

The Hollywood Post Alliance describes their 15th annual technology retreat on their web site with the heading “Now more than ever! Arm your Brain”. In these challenging economic times it is important to be thinking in new directions and looking for all opportunities. We take a trip to the desert for some inspiration and to see what the HPA Technology Retreat has to offer.

Last year I was lucky enough to attend Sundance, NAB, Siggraph and IBC for fxguide. I was aware of the Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat but between other trade shows and my work schedule, never had a chance to attend. So when a friend called to ask if I’d like to go with him to the HPA Retreat my answer was yes and two hours later we were in the car on the way to Palm Springs. I was only able to attend for a short time, so this is not intended to be a blow by blow recap of the event, rather I hope to simply give you my impression of the event.

09Feb/HPA/WestinIn trying describe this event I came across this writeup on The HPA website:

It is an informal gathering, in the Palm Springs area, of the top industry-engineering, technical, and creative talent, as well as strategic business leaders focused on technology, from all aspects of digital-cinema, post-production, film, television, video, and related technologies for the exchange of information. In addition to providing updates on the latest technologies, it exposes those working in one aspect of the field to relevant activity in other areas.

This is held in the form of a retreat. Palm Springs is far enough from Los Angeles that attendees can truly get away with less fear of getting called back to the office for a crisis (attendees from Los Angeles will know that when conferences are held in LA that can be a problem). The resorts also offer a good value in a “close enough to drive” location with a relaxed atmosphere conducive to this style event.

There are many facets to this retreat, so let’s dive in!

The Demo Room

Panavision SSR

The Demo Room is “for those wishing to demonstrate new technologies and unique new implementations of technology, especially those relevant to the conference content”. This is not intended as a trade show or to do sales and they specifically don’t want you to show existing products unless they are required to show a new development. The Demo Room is very small compared to any kind of trade show, around 60 companies participated this year. This size and the HPA requirements to be in this room make it a very interesting place.

A few highlights:

Panavison had several things to show including a new version of their solid state dockable recorder called the SSR-2 designed to dock with the Genesis camera or the Sony F-23 and F-35. The SSR-2 records 42 minutes of uncompressed 4:4:4 or 84 minutes of uncompressed 4:2:2 HDSDI data.

Adobe was showing RED 4K native workflow in Premiere Pro and After Effects as well as Final Cut Pro XML import and EDL compatability with Assimilate Scratch.

Alioscopy demonstrated an impressive 3D display that required no glasses.

Alioscopy autostereographic display

One Demo that stopped people in the aisles was Rabbit Holes 3D Motion Holograms. Completely flat prints that are lit by a single light at a 45 degree angle and provide an amazingly bright and crisp 3D image with no glasses required. There is also the ability to embed up to 1280 frames of motion in the film surface so as the viewer walks past the print, the animation plays. They had a variety of sample prints including some from a Dark Knight ride at Six Flags Amusement Parks – for the ride they were printed actual size and featured clowns with knives – you could imagine the impact these must have when riding past these in an attraction. There is no way to show how bright these were but there are many videos on their site that show samples.

Rabbit Hole digital still from show floor
another still having moved left a bit

from Six Flags Dark Knight Ride

There were obviously many, many other demos including Panasonic showing a wireless metadata system for it’s P2 cameras, several other stereoscopic solutions, an on set fiber optic solution from Telecast, a layered floating point wide dynamic range codec from Image Essense, Digital Vision showing Turbine 2009 and Nucoda 2009 that will be launched at NAB, THX showing a method for content to carry “original intent” to deal with consumer electronics and the multiple formats and ways content can be represented… and this is just a quick sampling of the offerings.

The very first vendor I saw told how me he thought the HPA was a fantastic show for them – lot’s of great direct and very technical interaction with tech people at a very high level.

The Program

09Feb/HPA/ProgramRoomHave you ever been to a conference that had sessions that ran too long and the schedule drifted throughout the day? Well, thanks to the tight control of moderator Mark Schubin this program runs like clockwork. “I will start the intro to the next session at 1:13pm and the presentation will begin at 1:15pm” was his announcement before lunch, and he was not kidding. Individual sessions are a half hour and Mark will stop the presenter mid sentence when the clock counts down to 00:00. Panels with multiple presenters run 45 minutes. The short length makes the presentations very tight and even if it’s a topic you didn’t think you were interested in you will likely stay and get something out of it. That is kind of the point, come for your main area of interest but then expand your scope. (Here is a link to a list of this year’s programs.)

Thursday morning was focused on Content ID… fingerprinting and watermarking content, what is the state of the art and what works and doesn’t. This is a huge topic for content creators as the internet has turned into the wild wild west for people feeling they can share copyright protected material freely. As a presenter from Turner pointed out they have a lot of “loyal fans” who put their content up on the net seconds after it airs. In addition some of the “loyal fans” like to take characters they own and make them do things the creators would prefer they not do. The problem is very complex – it is fairly easy to detect that the content is from a certain TV show using video or audio fingerprinting if the clip is used as is and of enough length to analyze, but they want more instance specific information about where it originated, what market was it intended for.

Fingerprinting is using pattern recognition in the audio or video to identify content (think of the iPhone applications like Shazam or Midomi where a small snippet of a song can be analyzed and identified).

Watermarking is embedding a code in the audio or video (or both) that identifies the content. The process of using either of these to find content is very complicated and must survive numerous “attacks” like changes in scale, crop, color, skew, compression artifacts… think of a case where someone shoots the content off of a screen with a camcorder. Also sometimes only the video or audio will be replaced for comic effect. Watermarking is always walking a line between invisible vs. robust, and in their tests they found none of the systems that were current then (2008) were reliable enough (although sometimes using multiple systems together produced better results). They continue working with multiple vendors on this and have developed test material that can help pre-qualify systems as they go forward.

In a presentation called “Washington Update” Jim Burger gave an update on issues coming out of Washington and the courts and he mentioned a legal case, Lenz v. Universal Music Group. One of the things that came out of that case is that content owners are limited in their use of automated tools to identify pirated content and send DMCA takedown notices. These tools were mentioned by several presenters as now being used as a way to identify for human evaluation content that may be in violation, rather than it being a fully automated process.

NBC Universal’s Content ID efforts at the Beijing Olympics brought the issue to real clarity. The effort to broadcast such an event is so expensive that protecting the exclusivity of the content is critical. To give an idea of the investment the content originators make in an event like this Sheau Ng from NBCU mentioned that the equipment for their coverage filled 100 shipping containers. In Atlanta 1996 they broadcast 172 hours of events, in Beijing 2008 they broadcast 1371 hours but when combined with events that were available as streaming content it totaled over 3600 hours and the output needed to be delivered in 16 different formats. They worked for over a year with the IOC, broadcasters from around the world and User Generated Content sites like YouTube to develop a system whereby Olympic content could be fingerprinted and detected at upload time to reduce infringement. He said they had a 99% success rate although he did say that the nature of the Olympics and sporting events in general is they tend to have very short shelf life.

These sessions are a perfect example of the strength of this style of presentation – as a visual effects artist Content ID is not something that enters my daily work, yet I found these talks fascinating and informative. Obviously my involvement in content creation from an fxguide/fxphd perspective does make it a topic of some direct interest, but I had no idea of the amount of work being done and money being spent in this area.

After lunch there was a session by Jim DeFilippis of Fox on their efforts to move from tape to file based delivery. He mentioned as an indicator of where we are heading that there is essentially no new development being done for videotape machines and guessed that Fox is on a three year path to being 100% tapeless.

Mark Schubin quiz posted on the wall at registration

The session that followed was on fiber optic connectivity by Anthony Magliocco from AboveNet and JabNet. AboveNet offers high speed connectivity between studios involved in content creation – and unlike others who have come before in this area, they own the fiber – it is not leased lines. They aim their pricing model to be like a shipping company, how much do you want to move and how fast do you need it there. Once you have a very high speed connection not on the public internet all sorts of other uses can be imagined beyond moving large amounts of data – like remote sessions, archiving, collaborative sessions due to low latency, connection to other existing networks like SohoNet through others on the network.

Jim Fancher from Deluxe was next with “Real World Data Transfer Results” with ideas on testing bandwidth and looking at things as simple as problems with using the cp command to move large file directories being very inefficient.

A talk called “Storage Year in Review” by Rob Kobrin explored the various tiers of storage and the current state of the art. One nugget he mentioned was on a slide that quoted IDC that “By 2012, one-third of all disk storage sold will be to the media and entertainment market”. It is clear that more and more media is being shot or moved to digital and that curve is growing fast.

One other fun aspect of the Program part is that Mark Schubin posts multiple quizzes during the event and people try to provide the answer, this is one smart crowd so most I saw posted were answered at some point during the day.

I had limited time but the few sessions I was able to attend made me a believer and fan of this format and quality of talks and hope to be able to attend more in the coming years.

One other perk for attendees, they are given a special code that gets them web access after the event to a great majority of the presentation support materials as powerpoint file or pdf documents.


The crowd at this event is very technical. It is not an inexpensive event so the people that are there are motivated and focused. There are plenty of opportunities for face time with people in a relaxed environment that truly rounds out the experience – Breakfast Roundtables, catered lunches, dinners, even a bowling outing. Years ago an organization called ITS used to have management retreats that featured breakfast roundtables and I was a big fan of this format. I was unable to attend these at HPA but looking at the topic list it was certain one would appeal to any attendee, or you could sit in on one outside your area of expertise.

Change is Good

I would be remiss if I did not mention some economic overtones I observed. Upon arriving I was having a conversation in the demo room and behind me some people were talking… all were recently out of work. I brushed it off and kept looking at stuff on the floor. The next time I stood still I heard the same thing behind me… “I’m on severance”, “I’m doing some consulting”. I starting wondering, is it that bad? I met some friends for dinner. One person at the table had a job, but his company is in Chapter 11. Two were on severance, and I am freelance – able to be there because I was between gigs.

Talking to vendors I discovered another impact this economy is having… the more ready availability of used equipment on the market. It is much harder to sell new equipment when people can pick up bargains at auctions. This is unusual in our business for so much new technology to be on the market as used and is worrisome in a market where shareholders want constant growth.

The thing about a conference like this is that while these economic realities can smack you in the face – you cannot help but realize that there is so much going on in this business. Change is difficult and especially frustrating in these times when shareholder’s unrealistic expectations can cause unreasonable change, but the fact is change also means opportunity and there is more media being produced than ever before. It is important for everyone to look for the opportunities in change instead of dwelling on the darker aspects.


Mark you calendar, the 16th HPA Technology Retreat will be held February 16 through February 19, 2010 at Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa.

I’d like to thank the HPA for giving me press access on such short notice.